Lock In by John Scalzi

“Not too long from today, a new, highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent – and nearly five million souls in the United States alone – the disease causes “Lock In”: Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge.

A quarter of a century later, in a world shaped by what’s now known as “Haden’s syndrome,” rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is paired with veteran agent Leslie Vann. The two of them are assigned what appears to be a Haden-related murder at the Watergate Hotel, with a suspect who is an “integrator” – someone who can let the locked in borrow their bodies for a time. If the Integrator was carrying a Haden client, then naming the suspect for the murder becomes that much more complicated.

But “complicated” doesn’t begin to describe it. As Shane and Vann began to unravel the threads of the murder, it becomes clear that the real mystery – and the real crime – is bigger than anyone could have imagined. The world of the locked in is changing, and with the change comes opportunities that the ambitious will seize at any cost. The investigation that began as a murder case takes Shane and Vann from the halls of corporate power to the virtual spaces of the locked in, and to the very heart of an emerging, surprising new human culture. It’s nothing you could have expected.”

My goodness, does this novel have some beefy, chewy issues for readers to ponder. It’s taken me a while to sort through everything in my head to write this review, so let’s see where it goes. This is one of those novels that is going to make you think, and think hard, about a lot of different issues. Many of them may not be ones that you yourself face on a daily basis, if at all, which makes this book doubly valuable.

One on level, you have the explorations of the virtual world where many Hadens spend much of their time. There are some obvious parallels to people today, especially younger ones: there’s a growing concern about how much time we spend “plugged in” and not interacting with real people. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that Hadens can’t actually interact in their real bodies, so they need some form of mechanical intervention, but the basic premise remains. You have to wonder what the effects of a purely virtual existence would be.

On another level, you have the very salient question of disability rights. This aspect is a little more overt in the prequel novella Unlocked (which you really should read, preferably before you read the novel, although it’s not necessary), but it definitely carries over to the novel. For example, is it a crime to beat a Haden’s personal transport (a humanoid “robot” controlled by the Haden’s neural network), since the transport feels no pain and therefore neither does the person driving it? What about a personal transport—which can’t eat—taking up a chair in a restaurant?

And this all feeds into the deeper issue of what it means to be human. You can probably anticipate that Hadens come to be treated as less than human, since all the non-locked-in people interact with is the mechanical aid. How tolerant would we be of the stranger, the “other”, when confronted with them and their basic needs? It is this, even more than the technology, which makes this novel science fiction.

Delivering all of this thought-provoking stuff is a smoothly told murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end. Everything comes together in a satisfying manner with lots of suspense and plenty of suspects and motives. Chris is a likeable protagonist, and I was especially intrigued by his partner, who has her own demons to conquer.

I can only hope that Scalzi wants to continue to tell stories about Chris and the world he lives in. I want to see him dig deeper into what makes these characters tick, and I definitely want to see how the clash between Haden culture and “mainstream” culture plays out. Locked In is a novel jam-packed with goodness, and I’m going to have to read it again to appreciate all the nuances and deep thoughts that run through the narrative. Make sure to grab this one—you’ll rarely find a science fiction writer as skilled and entertaining as Scalzi.

This review was originally posted on August 28, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

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